You either like the Australian director Baz Luhrmann, or you hate him. Unfortunately for the many Movie Klubbers who greatly enjoyed his 1992 film debut Strictly Ballroom, I hate him.
Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) is a ballroom dancing wunderkind, but he has a nagging problem: he likes to improvise, making up steps that they don’t teach down at his dance studio. After his latest partner dumps him as a result, mousy Fran (Gia Carides) says that, despite being a beginner, she wants to dance with him. Since ballroom dancing is a sport, their story is a sort of sports movie, a possible offspring if The Karate Kid mated with The Cutting Edge.
The problem is that Luhrmann puts his brash, unsubtle style on top of all of it. It might seem that ballroom dancing and Luhrmann are a natural combination; the performers have their garishly colored costumes, and they pile on the pancake makeup so as to not look too pale under the bright lights, both of which are sharp contrasts in color that Luhrmann knows how to make stand out. He understands that it just takes a bit of the right lighting and the wrong camera angle to turn this supposed display of beauty into a grotesque.
However, once Luhrmann starts taking the grotesque angle he can’t seem to stop; characters such as Scott’s mother seem to be wearing their dancing makeup all the time, and the villain in the film has a face so red that I wanted to call the paramedics for him. Every line from the unlikeable characters in the movie is hit with a sharp close-up from an unflattering angle, and it all comes so rapidly that it begins to feel like an assault.
Moreover, the movie flunks basic storytelling in many ways. The film opens with the conceit of a fake documentary about Scott Hastings, in the style of This Is Spinal Tap, but that idea is long gone before we’re even ten minutes in. Clearly the fake-doc angle is just a way to dump large amounts of exposition on the audience in a hurry, a form of laziness in storytelling that I cannot abide. Later, Scott makes an important decision to set up the film’s third act off-screen; not only does that leave a chunk of important drama out of the story, but the transition is so poorly handled that I was sure the next scene was a dream sequence.
Worst of all, this movie has a completely tin ear for what it means to be Fran. During the climactic dance competition, Fran has her big angry monologue, followed by then exactly one line of dialogue (“why don’t you–“) for the film’s final eighteen minutes. The end of this movie suggests that the victory is Scott’s, that whatever fear he had to overcome is the most important one, and that may even be true, but Fran deserves better than just being the partner who gets to follow his lead. Instead, she’s just reduced to that time-worn cliche of Plain Woman Who Becomes Sexy Once She Takes Off Her Glasses And Lets Her Hair Down™.
I did enjoy the scenes where Scott and Fran are dancing together, mainly because these are the only scenes where Luhrmann mutes his colors, puts the camera in the right place, and lets his performers do what they do best. The scenes where Scott learns the paso doble are especially fine, almost like a training sequence in a high-quality martial-arts movie, as he learns that mere technique is not enough no matter how good it is. Passion and imagination are necessary too. However, each of these scenes has to end at some point, and then we’re back to wild close-ups and crazy makeup again.
There’s a fleeting shot during the climax of the film when Scott’s Ric Flair-esque competitor is dancing the paso doble himself, when I caught the glimmer of a good idea from Luhrmann. There seemed a sharp, intentional distinction drawn between the bland (one might say “whitewashed”) dance done by the super-Aryan bigwig in that shot, and Fran’s familia doing the dance the way it was meant to be done. I had just a whiff of that idea, for half a second … and then it was long gone, covered up by whatever loud outfit and hammy performance a supporting actor was saddled with in the next shot. That’s how Luhrmann’s films always seem to me: a collection of good ideas lost.
Reviewed by Mark Young